Stephen Forsdick (b. 1835): Life and Labour

I have seen more of Pioneer life than falls to the average man. I think I have seen every phase of it.

Stephen Forsdick was born into a working – class family in 1835 in Watford, which ensured his childhood would involve a labouring life beginning as early as 13, when he left the “Free School”, ‘The spring before I was fourteen, I left school and entered the employ of a Mr. Shute, who owned and operated three Silk Mills.’ (p, 3) This was the beginning of Stephen’s working life that created the strong pioneering characteristics that dominated his personality.

Stephen’s memoirs are heavily concentrated on his working life and how it led to his final occupation as a farmer in Nebraska. David Vincent argues that this is due to a lack of involvement in activities outside of the working day, which is a result of a working – class lifestyle, ‘… the less he (a working – class autobiographer) was involved in specific activities of self – improvement or political activity, the greater his preoccupation with the details of life as a worker.’(Vincent, p62) The working – class community in the 19th century were more often than not forced to work long hours in environments such as factories or Silk Mills in Stephen’s case. Their lives lacked the time to socialise or experience leisure, which led to issues in health that was a factor of the poverty cycle in Britain at this time. Luckily, Stephen’s family was granted security by working and living on the Earl of Essex’s estate. On one hand, emigration to America with the Mormon converts may have saved Stephen from a typical working – class lifestyle, but on the other hand it did involve similar harsh conditions as travelling did expose him to dangers that he would not have been open to in England.

When Stephen began working for Mr. Shute in 1849, he explains the process of his hiring as a selection of the young boys who were to leave school that summer and he happened to be the ideal candidate, ‘He wanted a boy in his counting house and came to our school to get one. I was selected and began making my own living.’(p, 3) Stephen narrates that he was happy in his line of work and that he was ‘trusted more than any boy who proceeded me.’(p, 3) By 1852, he was earning sixteen shillings per week which ‘was big wages for a boy.’(p, 3) Throughout the entirety of Stephen’s memoirs, he consistently reminds his readers that he was proud to be making his own living and I believe this as stemmed from his happiness in his starting job, which many working – class people did not experience. To close the chapter, he shares his regrets that he left the company to go to America, ‘… as soon as I had reached the age of twenty one, he would have made me manager… He was worth nearly two hundred thousand pounds, when he died, so it can be seen what an opportunity I foolishly threw away.’ (p, 3)

Silk Mill compound in Watford, c. 1895.

However, Stephen’s life was about to change as he entered the US, and his working life would now involve travelling, conflicts and danger of attack as explained in my previous post. Stephen often reiterates that his pioneer work did not earn enough money to live on, especially when he had built a family of his own, which is why he decided to return to England with his first wife and their two children after working in Michigan through the winter and falling ill, ‘it was a hard life.’ (p, 52)

Group of Mormon converts in Utah, c.1850s

When Stephen returned home, he was given work in Birmingham at the Parcels Department in 1865, ‘the pay was only seventeen shillings and six pence per week.’(p, 55) He recalls seeing the large bulletins reporting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln when he arrived in Birmingham, providing him with a link to his previous home, ‘the first thing I saw was a big bulletin telling of the Assassination of President Lincoln.’(p, 55) But, after having a taste for the cruel class system in Britain, which I addressed in one of my previous posts, he decided his heart still lied in America, to which he returned soon after.

Stephen’s emigration back to America with his family almost cost him his life, as the ship almost sunk and they lost all their belongings, but he felt his future belonged in America and in his opinion, it was worth it. He became an official citizen of the US in 1870 and decided there was no going back, ‘I received my Naturalization papers and became a full citizen of the United States and swore to obey the laws of this country.’ (p, 59) This then led to Stephen’s involvement in agriculture, which would be his last occupation before writing his memoirs at the age of 70.

Like most of his experiences, Stephen did not enter the world of farming easily. After his family had established their own land and began to build their surroundings in terms of crops and animals, the weather in Nebraska often caused severe set backs for the Forsdick’s, ‘On Sunday evening, the wind changed to the northwest and we saw that the fire was coming our way.’(p, 61) When the fire arrived it almost destroyed everything, before the dry summer that was ahead eventually caused Stephen’s crops to die out and the family was now under severe pressure to feed their children. Tragically, Stephen and his second wife lost their young boy Charley at the age of eight due to this hardship, but he describes how his neighbours provided the utmost support for them, ‘It was during this time, that we realized the goodness of our neighbours.’ (p, 62)

Nebraskan farmhouse in the late 19th century.

Stephen spent the remainder of his life on his daughter’s farm, as he had grown accustomed to the life he had built for his family in Nebraska. In the closing chapter to his memoirs he describes his working life, ‘Sitting today on the porch at my daughter’s home… I feel that with all my hardships and trials, I have had many blessings and many things for which to be thankful.’ (p, 67)

To conclude, Stephen’s life and labour experiences were difficult and trying times for his entire family. Edward Thompson describes the 19th century for the working – class as an era of exploitation and de – skilling jobs that inevitably played a role in the creation of the class system in Britain. (Thompson) Stephen was thrown into this era but arguably gained skills rather than becoming de – skilled through entering various forms of occupations which again was a result of emigration. As I previously stated, I believe Stephen’s path in his life, although tragic and difficult at time, provided him with many blessings that he would not have been granted with had he stayed in Watford.

  • Forsdick, Stephen. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.242a
  • Thompson, Edward. The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin UK, 2002
  • Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of 19th Century Working – Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, 1981
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